Special teams shine in UMass’ weekend sweep of Union

Minutemen power play scores seven times on the Dutchmen

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Kira Johnson/ Daily Collegian (2022)

By Colin McCarthy, Assistant Sports Editor

The Massachusetts hockey team hangs its hat on special teams every year, but through the first three games of the season, head coach Greg Carvel wasn’t overly impressed with his power play unit.

Two games removed from Carvel wanting to see more goal scoring from his special teams group, No. 6 UMass (4-0-1) now boasts the best power play percentage in the country. The Minutemen scored seven extra-man goals in their series against Union.

“I think every power play we should be dangerous,” Carvel said. “At times this year that’s not been the case … but our first unit has really good power play players on it, even with Cal [Kiefiuk] out tonight we score four goals.”

With Kiefiuk out of the lineup on Saturday, Carvel needed to adjust his top power play unit accordingly, sticking Ryan Lautenbach in with Kenny Connors and Reed Lebster on the first forward line.

Regardless of the changes to the forwards, Ryan Ufko and Scott Morrow carried the majority of the extra-man attack from the blue line. Morrow finished with a pair of power play goals on Saturday and both those scores were initially set up by Ufko. The defensive pairing has run the top power play line since their freshman year and established chemistry together.

“They are two elite college hockey defensemen, really gifted offensive defensemen,” Carvel said of the duo. “I don’t ever talk to them about offense, they teach me things, I can’t teach them anything. That part of their game is superb … two guys that are just fun for me to watch play the game.”

Ufko has the offensive vision to make the best play and set up dangerous scoring chances, and Morrow is always looking for a clean shot on goal, either to score one of his own or get a redirect in front. On Saturday, his shots were finding the back of the net easily.

Morrow’s first goal of the day was a picture perfect shot. The sophomore had the puck on his stick at the blue line before cycling down the boards, and once he got inside the left face-off circle, he fired the puck quickly over Dutchmen (2-5-1) goaltender Connor Murphy’s shoulder.

Ten minutes later, the defenseman added a second power play goal, with a direct assist coming from Ufko. Their spacing with and without the puck allowed for open looks on both of Morrow’s tallies.

“We’re both willing to shoot the puck, we’re both willing to pass the puck and generally we try to be unpredictable up there,” Morrow said of him and Ufko. “I think we’re both threats, and a lot of teams play with one forward up high [on the penalty kill] so we just 2-on-1 him.”

“It’s probably pretty hard for teams to stop when you’re trying to guard both of us with just one guy.”

The second power play unit also scored a pair of goals in Saturday’s win, headlined by Tyson Dyck and Lucas Mercuri. Mercuri scored the first goal for the second unit on a pass from Dyck, and Dyck scored later in the game on a pass from Mercuri. Cole O’Hara and Josh Nodler each added one assist to the total for that group.

“Both units have been buzzing pretty well,” Morrow said of the power play. “I think our second unit would be the top unit on most teams in the country, we’re pretty fortunate to have a lot of talented guys on our team, but I think we shared the puck pretty well and overall it was a great team effort on special teams.”

The offensive talent is clear in the Minutemen’s power play, which is ranked No. 1 in the nation and scoring on 50 percent of its attempts so far this season. But the penalty kill has also been dominant.

UMass went 6-for-6 killing off penalties on Saturday and was a perfect 8-for-8 on the weekend as a whole. Outside of shutting Union out while down a man, the Minutemen didn’t allow many chances on special teams. Almost every possession on the penalty kill went one of two ways: either UMass regained control of the puck with its aggressive checking, or Union took a low danger shot that Cole Brady turned aside with relative ease.

Part of the success on the penalty kill comes from Carvel and the consistency he’s established in that unit since he arrived in Amherst. It also comes from the Minutemen’s new assistant coach, Tom Upton, who’s had his hands all over the penalty kill since Carvel added him to the staff in the summer.

“[Upton] has done a great job with the PK in terms of our special teams and knowing what we have to do, so it’s been really good so far,” Mercuri said.

UMass was about as perfect as it could be on special teams against the Dutchmen, ending its weekend with a 63.6 percent power play success rate and a 100 percent success rate on the penalty kill. Carvel knows how important that success will be heading into Hockey East play, particularly on the impact it brings to the defense.

“Special teams are strong to this point but what I like most is that we’re playing strong defensive hockey,” Carvel said.

Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.